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11/4/2018 11:42:00 AM
COMMENTARY: Let There Be Light: Finding that speck of truth in political ads

Gayle R. Robbins, Vincennes Sun-Commercial Editor & Publisher

I understand the popularity of negative campaign advertising — that it's popular because it works, which is why it's practiced with such vehemence by those who manage political campaigns.

That negative campaigns condemn the rest of us to a sort of political perdition during the duration of the election cycle doesn't really enter into the equation.

Our suffering from an onslaught of negativity doesn't seem to register — and candidates now get to hide from any responsibility for the worst of the attack ads by claiming neither they nor their campaigns had anything to do with them.

Of course, they don't publicly denounce the ads either, especially if the ads are having the intended affect of boosting their own prospects of election.

How can you print some of those negative ads?

I get asked that question every so often. Generally, when I'm asked about a certain negative political ad, the question comes from a supporter of the candidate who is the “victim” of the attack.

That the questioner's own candidate has been doing a pretty good job of slinging mud in response doesn't register.

Or, the reply is something along the lines of, “But my guy is telling the truth!”

What is “truth” in political advertising?

I'm as frustrated as Pilate in trying to determine an answer to that question.

So in the newspaper business we try to consider what a law professor, in his colloquial way, once told me was the “truthy-ness” of a statement.

Now, that “truth” may be only a tiny speck of gold in a big pile of mud, and it may in the end turn out to be fool's gold at that. But as with any form of speech, even a little truth has to be considered. And political advertising is speech, which has inherent protections.

I don't have any illusions of omnipotence, that I'm so wise as to determine how every reader will interpret a statement, especially in a political context.

Like beauty, interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.

As we all know, some truths are self evident and recognizable to all.

Truth interpreted through a partisan lens, however, gets badly distorted and ends up all but unrecognizable, at least to those on the other side of the divide.

But that's an interpretation for a reader to make, and I believe it's far better to let readers judge for themselves about the truthy-ness of a political advertisement, not to censor a charge just because my interpretation of the ad copy might differ from another's.

Sometimes you shake your head at what's being claimed, even occasionally ask a candidate whether he or she might consider re-phrasing the charge, make the same point with perhaps a little less vigor or a little more documentation.

But as long as there's at least a speck of truth to be found, no matter how muddy it's surroundings, you just have to wipe your hands and let it go.

Negative campaigning can be traced back to before the founding of the country. It's not new.

Rather than act as some kind of guardian against political speech that might offend, I think it's always better to leave matters in the hands of voters, to let them determine the “truthy-ness” of a candidate's ads.

And to let voters decide elections.

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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